CWR asked 15 prominent Christians to reveal the book that has most impacted their lives and collected their thoughts into one book. In this exclusive extract from ‘The Read of My Life’, Mark Stibbe explains why C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles have powerfully influenced him.
There was no doubt that the preacher spoke with an apostolic anointing. It was a powerful talk, which understood the felt needs and local situation of those gathered, while also interpreting and applying scripture well. It focused on Jesus and carried with it a powerful punch line, which clearly challenged the 3,000 plus international audience representing at least a dozen nationalities. Indeed it was clear that the large ministry team were well employed helping the many who wanted to respond.
For some the description of such a gathering represents something close to heaven. They love the large crowds and inspirational ministry of the 'mega church'. For others who prefer church to be small, it is their version of purgatory. How could anyone benefit in such a gathering?
But before you decide it's not for you, bear in mind that I am describing the birth of the church in Acts chapter 2.
Mega church is universally defined as churches that number a congregation above 2,000 and we have come a long way since Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Most discussions of mega churches focus on very large Protestant Christian congregations in the United States - of which there are over 1,800. But in fact there are a significant numbers of mega churches throughout the world, especially in South Korea, Brazil, and Nigeria. The largest mega church in America averages 30,000 in attendance; however, the largest of all is in Yoido Full Gospel Church, which claim over 500,000 attenders..
A book 'Pulling out the of the nose dive', due to be published in the middle of the next month by Christian Research will show that there are also10 mega churches in England, and a number of others who are way over one thousand-strong and nearing mega-size.
ENGLISH MEGA CHURCHES(The figures represent attendance and are based on a May 2005 English Churches Survey and other sources so may have changed since that date. )
1. Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) (Independent Black Majority Church BMC) Hackney, London. Founding pastor, Matthew Ashimilowo - 10-12,000.
2. Kensington Temple (Elim Pentecostal Church) Notting Hill, London. Senior Pastor, Colin Dye - 5,500.
3. Hillsong Church (linked to Hillsong Sydney), West End, London. Pastor Gary Clark - 5,000.
4. Ruach Ministries (Independent BMC), Brixton. London. Founding pastor: Bishop John Francis - 4,000.
5. Glory House (Independent Pentecostal BMC): Plaistow, London pastor Rev Dr Albert Odulele - 3,000.
6. Jesus House (Redeemed Christian Church of God BMC) Brent Cross, London Pastor Agu Irukwu - 2,500.
7. St Thomas' (Crookes and Philadelphia) Sheffield Anglican/Baptist/House Church, Sheffield. Rev Mick Woodhead (Anglican minister - Crookes) -Anglican) and Rev Paul Maconochie (Baptist minister - Philadelphia) - 2,500.
8. Holy Trinity (Anglican), Brompton, London. Rev Nicky Gumbel - 2,500
9. New Wine Ministries Woolwich, London (independent BMC) Pastor Dr Tayo Adeyemi - 2,100.
10. All Souls, Langham Place (Anglican), London Rev Hugh Palmer - 2,000.
11. Holy Trinty Cheltenham: 1,700; 12. Basingstoke Community Church: 1,500; 13. Everlasting Arms Ministry 1,500; 14. Community Church, Southampton 1,400; 14. St Andrews, Chorleywood; 1,400; 14. Revival Christian Centre, Solihull 1,400.
Churches of this size create various reactions:* Some are in awe of their success and rush to see what they can imitate in their church.* Others are negative claiming: they steal sheep from other churches; they pander to a consumer mind set - i.e. (anyone can attract a crowd if you give them what they want); they attract people who want to remain anonymous and not get involved. * Some argue that the size is purely down to the sovereignty of God who has chosen to bless certain churches. Some are meant to be large, some are meant to small. Each has their role. To analyse is futile and to list almost obscene.
Whether you fit into any of these categories or not, you would be hard pressed to deny that these high numbers in a country with declining church attendance does suggest that, under God, they are doing something right! Maybe there are things we can learn from these churches that will transfer to the smaller church? Christianity talked to some of the mega church leaders about what we might glean from what they had done and discovered four themes things that mega churches all seem to have that you can incorporate, whether your church is 40 or 400-strong.
1. A vision that's clear Mega churches know where they are heading. The vision of each may be different, but they know why they are doing church.
"When it comes to reasons for growth, number one is God. It is He who gives you a mandate and a vision," says Bishop John Francis of 5,000-strong, Ruach Ministries, an independent black majority church (BMC) in Brixton, south London. For Bishop Francis, the vision was to leave his father's 150 member church in north London to go to a church in Brixton. The church numbered just 18, 12 years ago.
For Matthew Ashimolowo, who began Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) with 200 adults and 100 children in 1992, the clear vision was that the Gospel would impact a generation by using timely technology. In addition to his Sunday services, his programme, 'Winning Ways' is broadcast on GOD network and Premier Radio, in fulfilment of a prophetic word, that the church would be a 'church without walls'. Today they top 12,000 in Sunday attendance, making them the largest independent church not just in the UK but the whole of Europe. It should be noted that half of the top-10 mega churches in England are black majority. KICC itself has a target to grow to 25,000 by 2010.
For St Thomas, Sheffield, the vision was to 'call a city back to God'. St Thomas is a joint Anglican, Baptist and House Church Church, comprising St Thomas' Crookes, and St Thomas' Philadelphia. Alex Absalom, an ordinand on the senior staff team told Christianity: "It is a myth to suggest that the typical mega church's vision is to grow a big church, for the sake of it. The size of the church is an outcome of the vision. Our vision first of all is for the kingdom, that we should call Sheffield back to God. It is with this in place that we look at what this may mean in terms of mobilising people."
Colin Dye senior pastor of Kensington Temple (KT) agrees: "I have no interest in numbers per se. We are concerned to equip people to reach the nation and the world. There is no reason to congratulate ourselves on size when so many are outside the compass of the church."
But many smaller churches have a 'God given vision' but don't see their vision fulfilled. Why have some churches grown into mega churches? Clearly each situation has its local factor. But a clue is provided by looking at the senior leaders of the churches and the time they have spent at the helm. KICC: Matthew Ashimolowo - founding pastor, 14 years; Ruach Ministries: Bishop John Francis - founding pastor,12 years; Glory House, founding pastor Rev Dr Albert Odulele 13 years;Kensington Temple: Colin Dye senior pastor for 15 years (formerly assistant minister);Hillsong, London Gary Clarke, pastor 3 years; Jesus House: Pastor Agu Irukwu senior pastor, 12 years. St Thomas Crooke, Mike Breen 10 years up to 2004Holy Trinity, Brompton: Sandy Millar vicar for 20 years, succeeded by Nicky Gumbel in 2004, who was curate for 18 years; New Wine Ministries London, Pastor Dr Tayo Adeyemi 13 years;All Souls Langham, Place Rev John Stott 25 years, Rev Richard Bewes 20 years - 2004.
Only Hillsong, London, which has seen explosive growth in three years has a pastor who has served less than 10 years. The figures can be interpreted various ways of course, but it seems that each mega church has or has had a leader who is enabled to develop a vision over an extended period of time.
Questions to ask:* Do you know where your church is heading? * How will you know when you get there?
2. Mission that's intentionalIt is of course true that some leave a small church to attend a larger one. But this is a likely symptom of success. Make no mistake mega churches are intentional about communicating the Gospel. The message will vary and the style certainly varies, but the priority is fishing, not sheep stealing.
"Large churches are highly intentional on how they do mission, and are prepared to make the sacrifice to make it happen and slaughter any sacred cows to that end," says Absalom, at St Thomas', Sheffield.
St Thomas' is organised into cell groups and clusters groups of 30-70 (3-6 cells) as its major focus. A cluster is a group gathered around a common vision to reach out to others like them in ways that are accessible and meaningful. Clusters are usually led by individuals or couples who set their vision in discussion with their celebration leader (a staff member who oversees them and similar clusters.)
When the church was homeless for a year in the 90s the year began with 17 clusters (2 failed) and ended with 33!
Bishop Francis at Ruach believes that good administration is a key component of his church's growth: "There are plenty of great preachers and worship leaders in smaller churches. You need a team who can facilitate growth."
Reflecting on his involvement in Willow Creek Association UK (a UK charity that provides resources from the Chicago based mega church, Willow Creek Community Church which tops 20,000 at weekend services), Russ Fenn of City Community Church, Exeter said: "Willow have raised the bar for leadership, encouraging us to be intentional about our mission - expressing a greater creativity in our life as Churches and the way we communicate with the world around us."
It is here that smaller churches can learn. In a sense anyone can come up with a vision to reach the town/city/borough - but where mega churches score is in their ability to follow through. How many churches have a clear vision, but then buckle when they receive criticism from members, or fail to follow through on commitments made?
Questions to ask:* How intentional are you about mission?* What has been started and then stopped? What needs to change for your neighbourhood/town/city to be reached?
3. Accommodation that facilitates vision Church growth experts have argued that a church will not grow if it meets regularly in a building that is more than 80% full. People will not stay if they don't think there is room, or if they think their friends won't get a seat.
No one model predominates within the mega churches in the UK. KICC has a 4,000 seater facility on land in Hackney, east London which is due to be developed as part of the 2012 Olympics. They now look to build a 10,000 seater church building and a four floor office including classrooms, nursery, restaurant and gym, possibly in a joint Olympic project. It has also planted KICC 'chapels' in London, Luton and Birmingham.
Others like Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), London, probably best known as 'the home' of the Alpha Course, are concerned both to build and church plant. They are planning to develop St Paul's, in nearby Onslow Square at a cost of £25m so that they can pioneer a multi site church, with talks from HTB broadcast on a big screen at St Paul's. But they are also committed to helping other churches. Mark Elsdon-Dew communications director at HTB explains, "Church planting is completely central to what we are seeking to do. It was on Sandy Millar, the former Vicar's heart and is part of Nicky' vision too. We want to do more."
HTB's church planting consists of the renovation of churches with low numbers across London, in conjunction with the bishop of London. Those now attending the 20 churches revitalised by Holy Trinity members amount to over 5,000, in addition to the 2,500 that regularly attend.
Other churches go for multiple services. KT has six services on a Sunday in its 850-seater building but also has a network of some 130 churches that meet across London, which meet at a convocation at The Albert Hall once a year.
Others hire premises to great effect. On Sundays, Hillsong use the Dominion Theatre in the West End in London, attracting 3,000 at 11.30am, 4:30pm 6.45pm. On Saturday nights they hold services at a theatre in Leatherhead, Surrey, 30 miles south west, and in Paris on a Friday at 7.45 and 9pm!
So there isn't one model, each has weighed the situation within their own DNA and acted accordingly. What is clear is that these churches own or rent buildings that have enabled growth. As soon as the numbers grew they made the changes necessary. Indeed Bishop John Francis at Ruach says: "We are having to face the buildings challenge. We will plateau at 5,000 if we don't do something."
Questions to ask:* If you were suddenly deluged with 1,000 extra people what would you do?* Is it possible that your church has put a lid on the growth because it has unwittingly settled for the status quo?
4. Networks for personal growth The style of the mega churches church services vary. They include contemporary worship using multimedia, liturgically based services, expository preaching, upbeat practical Bible teaching. The leaders we spoke to were too wise to believe that their particular style was the key to the Promised Land. What was clear was their commitment to a care network of small groups and a recognition that for all the importance of the main gathering, this was vital for the church to grow.
We have noted that St Thomas is structured around cell groups. Kensington Temple has a similar focus: Colin Dye, senior pastor explains, "Our concern is to mobilise and train people to be genuinely effective as disciples in society. Two thirds of those who attend are in cells. We have added to cells the idea of companionship groups, made up of three people so that everyone knows there are a few people whom they could call at a moment's notice. This is not an authoritarian structure but fellow soldiers seeking to help one another to be effective. Without an effective cell network larger church will never be able to truly mobilise the church. There's no point in having 5,000 to church but only having 300 disciples. We are called to make disciples not big churches."
If you are sceptical that a small church can learn from a mega church, Bishop John Francis thinks otherwise: "We began with a church of just 18. I encouraged my team to visit Kensington Temple where learned the value of welcome and follow up of people who came. I owe them and Colin Dye a debt for the example and help they gave us."
Questions to ask:* How well does your small group network work?* Does it develop people better able to serve Christ where he has placed them? How do you know?
What about you?Although this article presumes that small churches can learn from mega churches, all the leaders quoted were reticent to claim they had 'the answer'. The response of HTB's Elsdon-Dew was typical of other we received: "We are amazed at what God has done and want to bless others with what we have received."
God will take up and use who He will and sometimes it doesn't make a great deal of sense to sociologists and church growth experts. Nothing here is intended to suggest that small can't be beautiful, if and when the church is fulfilling what God intends for those particular people at a particular time. But Jesus calls us to be fruitful (John 15:8) and though numbers are not the only measure, they are certainly an important one.
But if no one is saying, 'do this and you too will grow', only a fool would presume that they could ignore these key four principles and still grow. Mega churches may be out of the ordinary, but they are a testimony to the goodness of God and an encouragement to every church to cry out, "Lord do it here! " Maybe a Pentecost is about to happen in your church?
Andy Peck is the deputy editor of Christianity magazine.